Race-Based Minimum Wage Challenge Gets New Life in 11th Circuit

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

August 1, 2018

Alabama's Minimum Wage and Right-to-Work Act, which mandated a uniform minimum wage throughout the state, may have racially discriminated against the City of Birmingham's black citizens, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

In 2016, a Birmingham ordinance raised the city's minimum wage to $8.50 an hour (and $10.10 an hour for 2017). But the very next day, then-Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed a law nullifying it. Alabama's minimum wage both then and now sits at $7.25, the same as the federal floor.

A group of low-income Birmingham workers filed a suit, along with several public interest groups, claiming that the Alabama law disproportionately burdened the city's black workers. A federal district court initially dismissed the case; but on appeal, the 11th Circuit reinstated the workers' racial discrimination claims under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

As the ruling notes, the Alabama law denied a sizeable wage increase to roughly 40,000 Birmingham residents, the vast majority of whom are black. Black wage workers in Birmingham make, on average, $1.41 less per hour than white wage workers in Birmingham and $2.12 less per hour than white wage workers statewide. Given those numbers, the court found it possible that the Minimum Wage and Right-to-Work Act "bears more heavily on one race than another."

The 11th Circuit also viewed it as significant that a white representative from Alabama's least diverse area introduced the Act, that it was passed with the help of 52 other white sponsors, and was objected to by all black members in the state House and Senate with little or no opportunity for public comment or debate. "These facts plausibly imply discriminatory motivations were at play," the ruling states.

As a result, the court reinstated their claims that the Act denied Birmingham's black citizens equal economic opportunities on the basis of race.

Similar legal fights are taking place elsewhere between cities and states, albeit not necessarily involving race. Earlier this year, for instance, a judge rejected a challenge by business groups to Minneapolis' gradual increase to $15 an hour minimum wage. The judge held that Minnesota's lower minimum wage law does not prevent cities from passing their own measures.